9/11 Tribute Center reopens

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“By remembering yesterday we’re going to make tomorrow better,” says one of the co-founders


  • Lee Ielpi, a retired firefighter and co-founder of the 9/11 Tribute Center, stands in front of a wall listing the name every victim, including his son Jonathan. The center reopened in a new location on June 7. Photo: Madeleine Thompson

There is a digital screen towards the exit of the 9/11 Tribute Center that scrolls through the names of those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001. It takes five and a half hours to complete each cycle. In case that doesn’t sufficiently summarize the scope of the exhibit, the screen is located next to a long, somber wall on which every single name is printed. By the time visitors get there, after wandering through story after story of fear and destruction, the last section of the exhibit focuses on resilience and community service, a welcome way of being ushered out.

The 9/11 Tribute Center reopened on Wednesday after moving to 92 Greenwich Street from its previous location on LIberty Street, which was only 6,000 square feet to the new space’s 18,000. Many of the same items moved with the center; a twisted steel beam, a menu from Windows on the World, the shredded firefighter jacket and melted helmet of Jonathan Lee Ielpi, who lost his life rescuing people. Mingling with visitors, a walkie-talkie on his belt, is Jonathan’s father Lee, a former firefighter and co-founder of the Tribute Center. “Here we have the ability to not only expand our size but to drive the mission home,” Ielpi said. “That by remembering yesterday we’re going to make tomorrow better.”

The exhibit opens with a quote from the Dalai Lama that introduces a recurring theme: “Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects.” Ielpi described the center’s docents as ripples because they all come from the community of people most affected by the 9/11 attacks, whether as family members, responders or survivors. The center has designated space for them to serve as living history.

Gail Langsner, a pet sitter with a warm smile, lived on Liberty Street at the time, in the building where the Tribute Center used to be. “I had eight birds that I had to take care of that day,” she told a small group of visitors on Sunday afternoon, during the center’s soft opening. “I couldn’t figure out how we were going to get them out. [My husband] borrowed some sheets from my neighbors and stacked up the little travel cases and made these bundles that he hung over a broomstick. We walked out of the building like every picture of fleeing refugees you’ve ever seen, with parrots.”

Whether in video form, in person or in writing, storytelling is central to the Tribute Center’s new layout. The winding path of the exhibit guides visitors from the history of Lower Manhattan to post-9/11 recovery and community service efforts. Stories from immigrants and architects line the walls at the entrance, setting up a vision of the area as a global center of trade. Interactive screens allow people to choose from a plethora of video interviews with those affected by 9/11. And, above all, the barely recognizable objects discovered in the rubble speak for themselves.

Educating visitors was a key goal for Ielpi, who feels people don’t know enough about the details and impact of that day. “This new center has the luxury of space to work through what happened, rebuilding and understanding,” he said. “Every day I realize how far we haven’t come.” He hopes that highlighting organizations like Beyond the 11th, a nonprofit founded by two women who were widowed on 9/11 to support widows in Afghanistan, will inspire people to channel what they learned and felt in the Tribute Center into their own communities. “We just have to figure out a way to try and understand what peace is in this world,” he said.

Madeleine Thompson can be reached at newsreporter@strausnews.com

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